NASCAR Preseason Thunder Fan Fest
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
January 15, 2010
DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA
DENISE MALOOF: Thanks for being with us tonight. We have up at the front Kelly Bires, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Michael Annett. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kelly Bires actually work together at Jr. Motorsports, and Michael Annett works for Germain Racing in the Nationwide Series. Gentlemen, just a quick word from each of you on being here tonight and kicking the season off.
KELLY BIRES: Just excited to be here, just for the 2010 season coming up. A lot of good things going on at Jr. Motorsports, and everyone is working hard and looking forward to having a good year.
DALE EARNARDT, JR.: Yeah, same here, just here to sign some autographs and answer some questions, I guess, do a little bit -- I guess they've got us reading a couple scripts and stuff for the track and stuff like that. Just one of the things to get the season started off.
MICHAEL ANNETT: Yeah, I'm definitely excited to be here. It's my first time here, and really can't believe the turnout they get. Just kind of wish we were in our cars other than answering a bunch of questions tonight.
Q. Dale, even before we've gotten on the track, there have been a lot of changes for this year. They've changed the way we're going to do business here on Saturday, we're going to do -- we're going to do everything on Saturday. They've changed starting times. They've moved races off of ABC and put them on ESPN, and now they're talking about the spoiler. Have you ever seen the sport go throughthis many changes, and is this all in a positive direction?
DALE EARNARDT, JR.: Well, you know, when you're running a business, you make decisions, and you're hoping you're making the right decisions. Not all decisions are the right ones, but you hope that you're making them with the best intentions. So I think that you have to look at it -- at NASCAR's situation, that's what they're doing. They're trying to make all these decisions with the best intentions to try to improve the racing for the fans. I mean, we've got to take care of the fans first. They don't make these changes for the drivers. But I like all the changes. I like them -- the start time changes are awesome. Being a driver now, I don't get to go through the process, but I remember when I was watching my father run in the mid-'90s, racing home from church trying to get to the TV before you miss too many laps. That was just part of the experience to me. You know, and that's one of the things -- there's things that you really grow used to or get to where you count on, and that was one of the things you counted on about Sunday, every day, for years.
I think it's great to be on ESPN. I mean, there's a lot of -- that's where sports belong. I think the other changes they're making to the cars and everything, again, they've got the best intentions to try to make it as good as they can. I'm pretty happy. I like changes and like to see what we can do better, and the only way to do anything better is to keep modifying and tweaking it, so I think it's great.
Q. Dale, looking ahead to 2010, this season, coming off of last season, you know you've got a lot to accomplish but you can't do it all at once. Can you maybe detail some of the major goals that you all have for this season and how you're going to go about accomplishing them?
DALE EARNARDT, JR.: Well, our goal is to win as many races as we can, win the championship, challenge for the championship. I'd like to win -- I think anything less than three races this year I'd be a little bit disappointed, and depending on what tracks those are, you know, it would be great to win at some tracks we haven't necessarily been great on in the past.
We've made a lot of changes in the off-season with our personnel and changing the entire culture in the shop, and I hope that those things are really going to improve our team and get us where we need to be competitively. We have everything there mechanically to get it done, and we have great people within the organization. So there's three guys that made the Chase, and we didn't, so there's -- we have to get out there and prove ourselves. I don't really know if I can get more detailed than that, but we're just going to go out there and try our hardest and be ruthless from the first lap to the last.
Q. Also a question for you, Dale. Events like this where the sport already has a good reputation for being very friendly with the fans, up close and all of that, and with the economy being the way it is, I know last year the struggle was selling tickets. Do you think events like this just help improve that reputation, and do you think what you do tonight puts fans in seats on Sundays?
DALE EARNARDT, JR.: I really don't know. It can't hurt. The promoters are coming up with -- the track promoters are coming up with some great schemes and packages, I think, and getting a lot more creative to sell packages to fans that are -- they're working more with their hospitality tents and their sponsors and people located in and around the racetrack, entertaining people to put together packages to try to sell in more creative ways than they ever have before. I think that helps a lot. It always helps when the drivers are out and they're visible and we can be around the fans and give the fans an opportunity to be around us and have contact with us and our cars and the main items and pieces that make the sport go -- the things that they follow, which is the drivers and the cars. If we can give them as much access to that as we can, it's good.
Q. For Dale, I'm sure in the position you're in, you get a lot of pressure put on you from the outside, some of it you put on yourself. I wonder how they affect you and how you deal with them, the pressure from the outside versus what you put on yourself?
DALE EARNARDT, JR.: I really don't pay much attention to that. I really don't dissect that down and break it down. I feel a lot of pressure from you guys or from the public to live up to the expectations, and you sort of get the headlines every off-season about what everybody expects you to do this next season. I've dealt with that over time, and you just kind of wait for that. Most of the time the headlines sting a little bit, so you just kind of wait for that to wear off.
I feel like I know what I can accomplish as a driver. Every driver, all three of us sitting here and everybody else in the field, feels like they know what their potential is and wants to go out there and do it. So you just gear up every year and go to work and make the best of the situation. That's all you can do.
I don't really put a ton of pressure on myself. I've already accomplished more and got further in the sport than I probably dreamed. But you know, just if you're competitive every time -- if you finish third, you want to run second. If you finish second and that was your ultimate goal, you want to win. Nothing is ever enough. Once you get a little taste of success, you just want more of it. That's what keeps me going, I guess.
Q. Dale, do you feel like you can come out of the box and be as good as you were the first half of 2008, or do you feel like it's still going to be a steady improvement to get to where you need to be?
DALE EARNARDT, JR.: I think we should aspire to come out of the box good. Me and Les seem to have a pretty good relationship, pretty comfortable with him. I don't feel like there's much more to do gel-wise with us, maybe some small things. But for the most part we should aspire to come out and be quick right off the bat.
Q. Kelly, are you going to be with your new teammate when you start -- when we get into the Nationwide season, are you going to be working more with Danica, or will that be something that - maybe Dale can jump in on this - but how much will you be working with your new teammate?
KELLY BIRES: A ton. I think she's -- we already obviously started working together. She relies on me a lot, relies on Dale a lot, a lot of questions. We all know she's very new to this. I've been able to go through the situation coming into NASCAR recently and have got probably a lot of questions, a lot of answers for her that I can help her with real fast. And then plus being the same size, I'm able to get in her race car and be able to help her out there.
But she's good. She's done extremely well in everything that she's been in so far. We're all excited about having her aboard.
Q. As a follow-up, with so much of the attention being focused on her and on Dale, does that kind of allow you to get in there kind of under the radar a little bit and do your business and concentrate more on racing?
KELLY BIRES: Well, I kind of consider myself -- I've been under the radar throughout my whole NASCAR career, and that's fine with me. We come to the track to do one thing, and that's to win races and to run for championships and go on with our business. That's what I signed up to do this, and everybody at Jr. Motorsports is behind me. We've got a great team going into this year and look forward to some big things happening.
Q. Kelly and Michael, at this point in your career, what do you want to accomplish more than anything else?
MICHAEL ANNETT: I think the first thing is to be steadily running in the Top 5 week in and week out, and if we put ourselves in that position we're going to put ourselves in position to win races. Like we saw last year, there was a lot of races that ended in a green and white checkered, and with the double file restarts if you can keep yourself in the Top 5 throughout the day and be there at the end, anybody in those first two or three rows, they can definitely bring home a win. That's going to be our goal is to get to the Top 5, and hopefully we'll be in the right position to win races.
KELLY BIRES: I mean, I feel like I've paid my dues the last couple years running in the NASCAR series, and I feel like this year is a great opportunity that Dale and Kelly gave to me to be able to win races, run for championships, contend week in and week out with the whole backing of the team that's done that already. So I feel like it's going to be a breakout year for my career, and I think we'd be disappointed if we didn't run Top 10, Top 5, contend for wins week in and week out.
Q. For Kelly, to kind of follow up on what Don asked Dale, can you speak about the pressure? Do you feel any pressure driving for the sport's most visible driver and the sport's most visible team? There's been a lot of drivers come and gone, and what's going to separate you from the people who have driven for this team previously?
KELLY BIRES: I don't think it's pressure, I think it's just more excitement on my stand. Sitting here, I'm excited about getting an opportunity to drive for a first-class team that's a proven team, proven equipment.
Now all I have to worry about is just doing my job. I think the separation would be the ambition that I have, the want that I want to do this and make this happen and succeed in the sport.
Q. I have a two-parter for Michael first, and then the same question for the other three. As a Midwest guy, were you aware of the Winter Classic up at Fenway Park, and what was your take on that?
MICHAEL ANNETT: Definitely. I was out watching that game for sure. It reminds me of growing up playing on the pond. That's where hockey started was out on the pond and outside, and the fact that they do it and the fact that they're doing it at places like Wrigley Field like they did last year and Fenway this year, that just brings even more to it. But that's where hockey started, and it's something they should do more often.
Q. The same question for the three, please. What would you consider to be the highlight of your off-season?
KELLY BIRES: I mean, every off-season I usually go back to my home state of Wisconsin and spend a bunch of time up there doing a little bit of hunting, a little bit of ice fishing, stuff that you grow up doing, snowmobiling. I think just being able to get back there, back to your roots and catch up with everyone, friends, family. It just gets you in the state of ready to go racing again. It's a good break.
DALE EARNARDT, JR.: I didn't really have any highlights, which I think is a good thing. I think Christmas morning at my sister's with my family, my nieces and my mother there was great.
MICHAEL ANNETT: Just like Kelly, we're both from the Midwest, so we're racing every weekend, you get to see a couple family members. But I have three brothers and three sisters and they all have kids and they don't get a chance to come to the races. It's good to get home and see all of them. Unfortunately this Christmas break, I think I was snowed in for about all nine days I was back there. I got to see them Christmas, and that's always the highlight, to see your family.
DENISE MALOOF: Kelly, Michael, I think you're free to move to your next station. Anything else for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.?
Q. Dale, you mentioned a change in the culture at the 5 and 88 shop. Is that more sensitive cooperation, sharing personnel? Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
DALE EARNARDT, JR.: Well, I think that we really kind of -- we weren't -- I don't really want to speak for everybody that's in the shop, but it really wasn't that long ago when we didn't know what was going to happen with Lance. So the team, myself, the team, everybody really in the shop is unsure about the future of the team. And that just creates so much instability when you're not sure about something that prominent.
So when he was able to solidify his position and we could move forward knowing this was the deal, this is how it is, everybody sort of wrapped their minds and beliefs and trusts into that and around that, and we could sort of build back some confidence and some trust and belief in the team.
Now what I see and what the track sees, what the fans see, and what you guys see is mainly the road team, but there's a lot of guys that work that are dedicated to the 88, but there's also a lot of guys that work on both cars and do a lot within both cars preparing the suspensions and what have you. So sort of getting the belief and the understanding from everybody in the shop, and that meaning -- when I say the culture, that's kind of what I mean, in the two cars and the people that really are intertwined between the two teams, kind of getting them all working and believing again in the 88 is what I think has changed a lot.
So Lance is telling me, being the guy that's there every day, is telling me that it's completely different, and he seems far more enthusiastic, I guess, about the beginning of the season and what our chances are than I anticipated him feeling, if I had to guess at the end of last year.
I knew we would make some changes and I knew we would try again at Daytona this year, but I feel even better now after just hearing him and understanding how much has changed, how much has really changed.
It helps my confidence that we'll be where we need to be. They made a lot of changes. They made some changes that I feel really good about.
Q. I know it's a little different coming from Fan Fest, but when you pull in here for Speed Weeks, describe the feeling that hits you when you come through that tunnel, particularly in a place where you've been so successful.
DALE EARNARDT, JR.: Yeah, when I pull into Daytona, I try to -- it's so modernized and different today than it was when I first came here. But I try to remember -- I try not to really get caught up in the hype that it is currently. I think about the old races that I saw here, whether I saw them on television or whether I watched them on a VHS tape or I watched them live. I try to think about when I saw a car come off a corner or a certain car go around 1 and 2 or guys come through the travel, or whatever. I think about that looked like and what all has happened here and try to remember the names and the faces of all the people that have came through here and had success and made the sport what it is, made the track what it is.
I mean, the track is really impressive, but it's the people who have came through here that really have put it on the map. So, you know, that gets me pumped up. Thinking about those things gets me excited, because I want to add another chapter to all that. I try to stay away from the energy that is current, the energy that's present at the time and all the glitz and glamour that's produced for that weekend and try and think about the history and add to the history and try to be a part of that.
Q. I know you touched on this earlier, but your fan base is obviously the most loyal and rampant in the sport. Do you feel an obligation to them to make the Chase every year and to win a championship? Just talk about that, how much you feel for your fans.
DALE EARNARDT, JR.: Well, there's definitely an obligation to the fans to make the Chase. There's an obligation to your sponsors. But to the fans, definitely, yeah.
When I miss the Chase like I have twice, I guess, in the last three years -- my math could be wrong. But it's disappointing to me. I feel like I've let them down. I feel like that I've came up short for them. You know, they put up a fight with you all year long. They fight every week right there with you. They argue their way through every day of work with somebody who's pulling against you. So they fight their own battles just like I do out on the racetrack.
So yeah, you feel like you have let them down when you don't make the Chase at least. I mean, damn, you hope to make the Chase. That's not really asking a terrible amount from your drivers. So you feel pretty bad. I think that's probably the thing that bothers me the most out of having a disappointing year. I could care less where I finish. If you don't make the Chase, it really doesn't matter. I think just missing the Chase itself is what's the hardest part, not the fact that we were outside the Top 20. After the Chase, really what more is there to argue about?
You know, you feel like you definitely start the season with making the Chase in mind, but the fans are a big part of it. You do it for other reasons, too. But at the end of the year when you do miss the Chase, you feel like you can make it up to your sponsors. You feel like you can go home and see your family and they'll understand, but you never really feel like you can repay the fans for being there and being loyal all year long to see you fall short.
DENISE MALOOF: Thank you very much. We'll see you down the road soon.
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